The strange duality of being a pregnant professor

Alternatively: The spirit is willing, but the body is busy making other plans

This semester, I’ve prepped a new class, advised students, written papers and proposals, attended two international conferences, and served on committees. In short, I’ve done all the things that an academic usually does. I’ve also put on twenty pounds, had heartburn so bad it made think I was going to throw up, lacked the lung capacity to get from my parking lot to my office, and had nights where I was so uncomfortable I got barely three hours of sleep. In short, I’ve done all the things that second & third trimester pregnant woman usually does. The tension between the daily work which engages my mind and the unmistakable physical changes which are taking place in my body have given this semester a strange duality – a sense of occupying two spaces at once, in a way that neither was meant to be occupied.

My mind is just as engaged with work as ever. Someone asked me whether I was experiencing pregnancy brain – a sort of absentmindedness commonly described in expectant mothers – but, no, when I’m attending a seminar, teaching a class, reading a paper, working on data, or talking with a student, I’m 100% attentive and just as committed as always. These are the times when I’m jolted back to physical reality by a well-placed kick reminding me to get up and move around or go to the bathroom.

But despite how much my mind is still all about the science, I don’t have the stamina for long work days, field work, or travel that I normally do. I’m having a hard time getting going in the morning, because I’m not sleeping well at night. More days than not, I’d prefer to take a nap on the couch in mid-afternoon. And I’m pretty well done for the evening by someplace between 8 and 10 pm (depending on whether I got that nap or got a decent night’s sleep the night before). And despite academia’s vaunted flexible schedules, I haven’t been able to accommodate those naps and early nights as much as my body wishes it could. I’ve found myself up until midnight several nights per week prepping lectures for my course, to be delivered first thing the next morning. I’ve done my best to soldier on, knowing that I can’t afford to look like I’m less than 100% this semester or risk seeming weak or uncommitted to those colleagues who will be voting on my tenure decision and who never experienced the physical effects of pregnancy themselves. And I certainly can’t afford to take time off.

The duality bleeds into professional encounters too. I told my lab group in the summer, before I was obviously showing, but I haven’t said anything to my class, even though at this point it’s completely conspicuous. I told my chair sometime in my second trimester, so that we could have plenty of time to make plans for handling teaching, grants, etc. But shortly after that I found out that other university folks were discussing my “situation” behind my back, in ways that were inappropriate and made me uncomfortable. And when I traveled to a conference in my third trimester, basically every colleague I saw asked about the baby bump, due date, etc. I like these people and consider many of them friends, but, hey, let’s talk some science too! However, let’s not talk science over beer late at night, because I’m not drinking and I get awfully tired.

While my chair and several of my colleagues have been wonderfully supportive, the university administration has not been. I’ve had to fight hard to get the 12-weeks of unpaid FMLA leave to which I’m legally entitled. Various offices in the university act like they’ve never encountered anyone asking for FMLA before, even though in a university with over 5000 employees, it has got to be happening multiple times every year. My fight to get leave took several weeks of time and energy, I suspect we’ll see another round or two of battle before it’s all over, and I’ve heard horror stories far worse. As a reminder, this is unpaid leave – the university will actually be saving money by not paying me for most of a semester – yet they act like I’m some sort of prima donna demanding unreasonable accommodation. (See why I don’t dare make any reduction in effort this fall?) I’m left with a sense that women with children are less than fully welcome at this university, that I’m trying to occupy two spaces when I really should be content to occupy just one – over there in the corner, not making any noise, grateful.

And the strange duality of this fall signals an even bigger disconnect coming – in January, I’ll be home with a newborn when my colleagues start the next semester. I’ll be overwhelmed with the physical demands of being a new mother, so for some time I’m expecting a full stop to my professional activities. But academia never sleeps… students have a reasonable expectation that I will supervise their thesis writing, grants have deadlines and obligations that are fairly inflexible, and I’m hoping to get my tenure portfolio ready for submission this spring so I need to get the last couple of papers off my desk. But I’ll be on 24/7 nursing and childcare duty. And I won’t be being paid. And I know from experience that sleep and free hands are scarce commodities in those first few months.

This semester, pre-baby, I’m trying to get as much work done as possible and say “no” to as many things I can for next spring. And I’m trying to weigh what I really need to keep on my plate in the next few months. The trying to get work done is subject to the physical limitations I described above, and the saying “no” seems to require a careful cost-benefit analysis for each decision. No to reviews, going on leave from being an AE – those are easy decisions. But a grant proposal that might fund my next research stage? That’s a big task, with uncertain outcome, but potential big payoff. Getting papers out the door? Really, really important, but how urgent? But if I don’t get them out the door this spring, am I going to have any more time to work on them as the mother of an infant, then toddler, on top of everything else I do. So I go back to trying to work as hard as possible for these last few weeks to ease my load a bit in the months to come. I’m living both in the present and the future, in a much more tangible way than normal, and it does nothing to ease the uncomfortable duality of my position.

Finally, there’s the juxtaposition of wanting to be so focused on work and get stuff done, while also knowing that there are a certain number of things we need to do as a family before baby arrives. We’re going to need a pediatrician. We’re going to need someone to take care of my older child and dog while I’m in the hospital. It would be very helpful to have some diapers when baby and I get home. It might be helpful to have some baby clothes ready. Or a carseat purchased and installed. And I want to savor these last moments with our family perfect just as it is – with a kid old enough to take to museums and concerts and to eat grown-up meals – without juggling the needs of baby on top of it. I want to savor being able to spend an evening just focused on my big kid – supervising piano practice and homework, cuddling on the couch to read – without the distraction of nursing and evening meltdowns. Not to mention it would be nice to go out with my partner without having to pump and hope that baby takes the bottle. So I find myself caught between using what energy I do have to focus on the professional versus on the personal. And running out of time to do either.

Maybe duality isn’t the right word. Maybe what I’m experiencing this semester is simply liminality – of being on the threshold of something new. But these last few months have been long enough and distinct enough to feel like they deserve their own recognition, discretized from what’s coming next. In academia, we often think of ourselves and each other in terms of our ideas and our work. This semester has been a strong reminder that I am not a disembodied mind, that the physical provides real constraints on what work I can accomplish and how those around me treat me. While there are definite downsides to this duality – things I’d banish in a perfect world – there is one big plus point: come January, I’ll be snuggling with my new baby.

75 thoughts on “The strange duality of being a pregnant professor

  1. As a college student with goals of being a successful business professional, and also dreams of one day being a mother, your post perfectly describes one of my major fears. You sound like an incredible professor, and I’m sure you will figure out how to continue to flourish professionally while enjoying motherhood! Good Luck, Stay Strong 🙂

  2. My baby is probably due around the same time as yours! I totally feel you on trying to get as much work done as possible while trying to prepare for the baby. In my case, pregnancy seems to have given me an energy boost instead of taking energy, so this semester has been manageable even though I am teaching a tough class for the first time. If I’d had significant fatigue, I am not sure I would have survived!

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